8

With her watching, I'm a liar. She's a fake. She's the liar.

...(7 sentences, another paragraph)...

To Marla I'm a fake.

Source: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

"I'm a liar. She's a fake. She's the liar."

Looks like here "a" become "the" because "liar" was mentioned already and we should use a definite article.

But after 7 sentences in the next paragraph we see the already-mentioned noun "fake" with indefinite "a". Why so?

  • 7
    For one thing, that rule about "first mentions" getting the indefinite article and further mentions getting the definite article is a huge oversimplification. It also does not accord with how articles are used: read any magazine article or blog or whatever, and you'll find that about 2/3s of all first mentions are used with the. Next it's also possible to use the indefinite article with first mentions and subsequent mentions of the same thing: I asked to be seated at a table. The host brought me to a table I could see I wasn't going to like. – Alan Carmack Jul 16 '16 at 17:15
19

With her watching, I'm a liar. She's a fake. She's the liar.

The noun "liar" here does not take "the" because it was just mentioned.

You can say:

I am a liar. She's a fake. She's a liar.

That would mean "we are both liars". When you use "the" in this particular situation, you indicate that out of you two, she is the only liar. It is as if you said

I am a liar. No, wait! She's the liar! It is she who is the liar between us two, not me.

When you are describing something, the "description noun", if it does not indicate a unique role, will take "a":

Bob is a policeman. John is a policeman too.

See? The word "policeman" is used to describe who Bob is, who John is. In this copular construction the noun "policeman" does not refer to any particular person, it's a description. You can mention it many times, and still it will take "a".

Bob and John walk towards each other along the street. Bob is a policeman. He wears the uniform, he clearly is a policeman. But why does he suddenly run from John? Ah, John is the policeman! Bob was only pretending to be a policeman!

The meaning in this sutuation is: out of these two persons, John is "the" (only) policeman. In this particular situation, the description is unique.

10

The rules for "a" and "the" can be complex and subtle. Yes, in general, "the X" is used when there is one specific X that is being talked about, and the speaker and the audience know which one it is. And yes, often the reason they know is because it was already mentioned (and may originally have been "a/an X" instead).

But that is not what is happening here.

CowperKettle's answer is basically correct. However, it isn't quite right in how it describes the "she's the X" idiom.

A hypothetical conversation:

Alice: "You're an idiot."

Bob: "You're the idiot!"

Why has Bob switched from "an idiot" to "the idiot"? The reason is all about what's implied, not what is said explicitly.

Bob is implying that there is only one idiot in this conversation. He has not explicitly denied being an idiot, but by saying "the idiot", he implies that there is only one (and so he's not it).

(In practice, this might be happening in a situation where Bob has done something quite idiotic, so it would be unreasonable for him to completely deny being an idiot. Bob's implication, then, is that compared to him, Alice is much more of an idiot.)

Summary: In this case, switching from "a" to "the" is not done to follow any particular rules of English. It is a deliberate choice of phrasing that puts a lot of implied meaning into a very short sentence. The effect is to deny being a liar, or suggest that "she" is a much worse liar than the narrator.


Also note that, in speech, the emphasis shouldn't be on the article. If "she's the liar" was spoken aloud, the emphasis would be on "she's", not on "the".

I mention this because when I read CowperKettle's answer, which bolds "a" and "the", I read it as having emphasis on those words, which sounds strange to me. (I would guess that CowperKettle bolded those words because they're the ones we're talking about, not because they should be emphasised in speech. And that's fine. But another common use of bold is to mark emphasis, and so I thought this warning was worth including.)

6

It has nothing to do with "first mention". It's about whether and how the statements are logically related.

This is a perfectly valid statement, using related and complementary assertions: "I'm a liar; you're a liar; we're all liars." Some style guides would permit commas in place of semicolons here, because the assertions are so short and so closely related. It would also be permissible to use periods (Commonwealth English: full stops), which would probably be interpreted as slow (perhaps excessive) "let it sink in" emphasis.

In this construction, the intent is to contradict a previous "off-camera" accusation: "I'm not a liar; she's the liar." This is a compressed version of something that in longer form might come out as: "I deny the accusation that I am lying about this. The liar in this situation is her." Note that if you use "a liar in this situation is her", that does not preclude anyone else in the situation also being a liar, so it would not logically support the "I'm not a liar" (or "I deny the accusation ...") claim. Use of "the" makes the second assertion (in either form) definite and specific. This would also work, to encapsulate natural dialog[ue]: "I'm a liar? She the liar!"

3

I'm having to guess a little at the context here but I think this is on the right track. I believe the first was intended to be read this way.

She's the liar = There is indeed a liar here but the liar is her rather than me.

Although I've expanded on the meaning in a way that does now follow the a-then-the pattern I wouldn't actually emphasize that too much because I agree that the rule is an oversimplification. Now for the second sentence:

She's a fake = She is fake.

Despite the structural similarity between the "liar" and "fake" sentences, there is no specific fake ever in discussion here and no reason to single anybody out as "the fake". She's just one member of the class of fakes and it's a common English expression to say it the first way. (The first way is a stronger way of expressing it and suggests the totality of her being is fake.) You can substitute the second form, which uses an adjective rather than a noun, to avoid the issue with articles and maybe satisfy your confusion.

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